Just over 30 years ago, 23-year-old Shannuga Baul and 154 other Tamil refugees stepped into a pair of German lifeboats and an uncertain future.
For navigation, they had nothing but the ship's captain's vague instructions: go that way, and you'll be in Montreal.
On Saturday, Aug. 27, Baul, now 53, stood next to that same boat – retrieved earlier this month from a St. Mary, Newfoundland fisherman's dock – on a stretch of Markham Road in Scarborough, as Tamilfest 2016 kicks off.
The boat is a piece of Tamil-Canadian – and Canadian – history: one of the first two boats of Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka, who found safe harbour on the shores of Canada.
“Still now after I see that boat, sometimes I can't even sleep,” Baul said. “I wake up in the middle of the night, thinking about the ocean.”
Baul was rescued from that ocean after three days by fishermen from St. Mary in Newfoundland, and then the Canadian Coast Guard. The arrival in the town wasn't what they expected – Montreal was a long journey to the west – but the community gathered around the newcomers in a way that Baul and other Canadians didn't forget.
On the 30th anniversary of their arrival – Aug. 11, 2016 – Baul joined about 100 other Tamil refugees on a trip back to St. Mary's, to say thank you and let the townspeople who'd helped them let them know what that meant.
Chris Duke, of St. John's City Wide Taxi, wasn't around when that happened. But his company helped provide transportation for the refugees at the time and also helped move the boat to Toronto.
“I'm a little young but there's very few days you can go to work and be so emotional,” he said. “There were days that I was literally hiding tears behind sunglasses. We took them out to the vessel and there were what seemed to me to be tears of jubilation – they're bittersweet, inspirational.”
Baul did eventually make it to Montreal, but he didn't stay there long. He's a long-time Scarborough resident now, with two children – one who's graduated law school and is off to London, England to continue her studies, and a son who's off to visit India soon.
He wasn't the only one on hand at Tamilfest for whom the boat had special significance.
Aarani Suchipiramam, 16, owes her life to it. Her father was there alongside Baul.
“It's pretty crazy, because if he hadn't come on this boat and survived, I wouldn't have been born,” she said. “It's pretty nice being able to see his journey.”
The lifeboat will be staying in Scarborough. Canadian Tamil Congress President Raj Thavaratanasingha said the congress has purchased the boat – and after the festival this weekend, it will be warehoused until the community can either place it in a museum, or, eventually, display it at a Tamil Community Centre.
“It's not only Tamil Canadian history, it's Canadian history,” he said. “It was one of the first lifeboats that came to this shore and it has not been turned away.”
Tamilfest, one of Scarborough's largest-ever street festival will close Markham road south of Steeles Avenue until Sunday evening. More than 100,000 people are expected to attend the festival.
For more information, visit www.tamilfest.ca